Boris Johnson has given his strongest hint yet that face coverings may be made mandatory in shops in England, saying that he is looking at ways to be “stricter” about their use.
The comment came as Mr Johnson signalled an apparent shift in government on the return to normal life, and said people should “go back to work if they can”. The government has previously said that people should work from home if it is possible.
In an apparent sign that the government believes it is now necessary to encourage people to end their four months of working from home, Mr Johnson added: “I want people to go back to work as carefully as possible.
“It is very important that people should be going back to work if they can. Everybody has taken the ‘stay at home if you can’ [message]. I think we should now say, ‘Go back to work if you can,’ because it’s very important that people should try to lead their lives more normally.
“I want to see more people feeling confident to use shops and use restaurants and get back to work, but only if we all follow the guidance.”
A Downing Street spokesperson later said that there was no change to official guidance that if people are able to work from home they should continue to do so.
The spokesperson added: “The prime minister was trying to encourage people who do want to go back to work to speak to their employers and see how that can be facilitated if it is safe to do so.”
Passengers on public transport are already required to cover their mouths and noses to limit the chance of spreading the coronavirus, but the UK government has so far stopped short of following Scotland by requiring the use of masks in retail premises south of the border.
However, the prime minister told a social media “people’s PMQs” that he was actively considering tightening the rules in England as the lockdown is lifted and infection numbers decrease.
Asked whether shoppers in England will be told that they must cover their faces, Mr Johnson said: “As we get the numbers down in the way we have and we stamp out local outbreaks in the way that we are, I do think we need to be stricter about insisting people wear face coverings in confined places where they are meeting people they don’t normally meet. That is why it is mandatory already on public transport.
“We are looking at ways we an ensure people really do have face coverings in shops, where there is a risk of transmission.
“I don’t think we are going to get to a world where we are going to say that everybody has to wear face coverings the whole time everywhere, but the balance of scientific opinion seems to have shifted more in favour of them than it was and we are very keen to follow that.”
He added: “I do want to get back to a world where the British people feel able to shake hands again. That’s what we’re aiming for, but face coverings – we increasingly think that we have got to be very insistent that in confined places where you are meeting people you don’t normally come into contact with – transport, shops – wear a face covering.”
Ministers have faced criticism for not wearing face coverings in public and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was accused of breaching social distancing rules by sharing an “elbow bump” with a worker during a factory visit on Thursday. But Downing Street said that Mr Johnson had been using a ?2 face covering bought from Poundstretcher.
But Dr Antonio Lazzarino, of University College London’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, said there was limited evidence that face coverings reduced transmission of Covid-19.
He added: “The evidence has not changed in the last few weeks; it’s still extremely weak. The question is why politicians may be changing their minds now. My worry is that masks are a pretence to ease the lockdown to help the economy. But this may well happen at the expense of people’s health.”